Music is universally valued across cultures. Any person you meet on the street can tell you how music has affected their lives in one way or another. Usually this effect is tied to the emotion that music evokes, or the sentiment associated with a certain song. I’ll never forget how I felt when I danced with my fiancé for the first time to “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt at his senior prom.
But music isn’t just for listening. I started taking piano lessons at the age of six, and it was fun for a few minutes, until I realized it meant I’d be giving up “Scooby-Doo” to practice every night. With practice, however, I gained skill and autonomy. My parents didn’t have to tell me to tinkle the ivories anymore; I did it all on my own. At that point, I thought I had it all in the bag.
My piano teacher then started encouraging me to perform in front of others. As a child, this was no small feat, especially once I understood that people judge you without your consent. But my parents said “Do it!” and my teacher said “Do it!”—so I did. I performed at our annual recital, which is a little more unconventional than most. “Music in the Streets” is what they call it, which suits the event, since the students perform in the parking lots along the sidewalk of a major strip. What’s also different about this recital is that it’s open to the public. Anyone can mosey down the street and listen to what you’ve been learning. This rattled my nerves because, in my mind, I was performing for the entire town. It took a bit of getting used to, but even at my young age, I felt the realness of that moment in time. It was as if I inherently knew that this was what living was really supposed to feel like.
Now that I’m an “experienced” performer, I’ve realized that performance is not solely about getting the notes right so that you’re not embarrassed in front of grandma. When you make music of any kind, you’re transmitting an emotional expression to others, as well as to yourself. Performing offers an awareness of the present that you never would have known existed until you tried it. In my experience, playing music can be a form of mindfulness meditation in itself. When I play, I can feel the sensation of my fingers pressing against the keys or strings. I can become actively aware of my own emotional reaction to the music on a beat-by-beat basis. I can consciously connect with the audience and feel their reactions. We can also find mindfulness through practice, or performing for ourselves, where even deeper mindfulness and introspection is possible.
I’ve been teaching at that same music school now for seven years. Mindfulness is something I strive to bring to my students in every lesson, though it most often disguises itself as “feeling the music.” Although music may not explicitly teach mindfulness, it’s a by-product that can help bring purposeful awareness into other aspects of your life.
My suggestion to parents who would like to encourage the development of mindfulness in their children: sign them up for music lessons. Yes, I realize that for the first few months you may not have a Mozart or Stevie Ray Vaughn on your hands, but the end result of mindful living will outweigh any temporary noise pollution. And after all, ear plugs are a relatively inexpensive investment! Believe me, they’ll thank you later.